Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

All the World's a Stage

July 31, 2010

Kate Lindsey and Paul Groves in Act III of Hoffmann
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2010

Les Contes d’Hoffmann arrived for the first time at Santa Fe Opera this month and true to the company’s history, they did not shy away from a modern and sometimes thorny staging for the work’s debut. Longtime Santa Fe collaborator Christopher Alden was given the task of bringing one of the strangest operas in the standard repertory to life under the musical direction of Stephen Lord. With so much of the opera’s action taking place in memory or dreams, there is a lot of design leeway here. Alden has placed all of the action in a late 19th-century beer hall complete with a most ironic painting of rolling green German countryside at the rear of the stage completely eclipsing the mountainous high desert and rolling thunderstorms of northern New Mexico. This late Victorian set will house all of the opera’s action with long tables and chairs being ushered around to form mini-stages and other elements in the tale sequences. Most of the principal cast members are onstage throughout the entire performance becoming more or less engaged in the action as their number comes up. It’s a logical device considering that Hoffmann’s casting largely relies in vocalists covering multiple parallel roles in each of the stories.

There is a fair bit of obtuse and sometimes symbolic stage business as when Dr. Miracle surrounds Antonia with a giant funeral wreath or the many hazy mirrors that are lifted high or gazed into by virtually everyone throughout Act II and III. The stage-within-a-stage device is used for all three of the female roles creating the effect that all three women have some of the performance and doll like qualities associated with some of the other female characters. In fact, Erin Wall, who sings all of these roles in the production, is typically dressed in a number of Victorian costumes by other members of the cast while on these stages prior to her “performances” for her audience in the opera. Alden offers a large amount of psychological material to consider in this very attractive staging that is just about as off kilter as the libretto itself. It’s a good fit. And while not everything connects, it’s never boring.

The downside to Santa Fe’s new Les Contes d’Hoffmann is the overall quality of the vocal performances. As much as I’ve liked Wall elsewhere, she is seriously miscast as Olympia and Antonia. Her Giulietta is the strongest of the lot, but there’s little coloratura detail elsewhere. Paul Groves sings Hoffmann with an enticing angst and virility. Some of his top notes continue to strain and fade away, but not to the point where it’s unpleasant. The villains were covered by an adequately creepy Wayne Tigges who gets to repossess Olympia’s eyeballs gleefully throwing them across the stage. I was impressed with the energy and physicality of David Cangelosi as the four servants as well. But the audience came to its feet first and foremost for the marvelous Kate Lindsey. She reprised her superb performance of Nicklausse from late last year at the Metropolitan Opera with real flair and formidable acting ability. She’s immensely engaging to watch and her rich mezzo is perfectly suited to the part. I’m very much looking forward to the days when she’ll hopefully take her turn as Octavian. Vocal quibbles aside, though, this is a very worthwhile and thoughtful Les Contes d”Hoffmann with some beautiful orchestral work under Stephen Lord. It continues in beautiful Santa Fe through August 28.



Brian from Outwest Arts really wrote a good review of this opera. I have read I think all the reviews and apparently some people didn't like it at all, complaining as usual, about the French diction and some people loved it (opera warhorses in particular). I thought it almost great. Christopher Alden was the star of this production, no doubt. His well thought out production kept everyone very busy, including placing all the characters in all of the acts, including the prologue and epilogue. I think the prologue goes on a bit long, but apparently it is true to the current research regarding what Offenbach wanted. One of the biggest problems was Erin Wall's singing - she is beautiful and graceful on stage but is not able to sing any of the coloratura nor can she trill. Someone told me months ago that Erin would have trouble in these roles, and they were absolutely right. What happened to her? Does she practice? Did she take a wrong turn technically? Sad, really. Paul Groves is heroic but the high notes are not there for him. I could have forgiven it all for really really good chemistry. And that is my main point. There was NO chemistry between these people. Aside the from the direction by Alden, David Cangelosi stole the whole show with Mark Showalter right behind him. Granted, David had the most stylized acting going on, but, really, Erin Wall and Paul Groves didn't even appear to look at each other much less have a relationship. And when I think back on the Arizona Opera productions this year, I think THANK GOD some people know how to sing and relate to each other on stage despite the stodgy direction at times. Should we blame Alden? Do these people hate each other? Or was it mid festival doldrums with a really DEAD audience? Can't say. Paul Groves appeared to be relating totally to his audience, however, but not in love. Kate Lindsey gets best vocal performance of the night but her approach is still somewhat vacuous in, again, relating to OTHER people around her. No sparks. Beautiful set. People I am sure were disappointed in the pared down one-set production. However, Alden more than adequately filled that void with his intelligent direction, design. I loved the bit about Hoffman seeing Olympia through opera glasses and then the entire men's chorus bringing back opera glasses for the Giulietta act. The men in fact were in their uniforms from the prologue throughout the opera. The women had LOVELY LOVELY bustled gowns and then approriately courtesan wear in the Giulietta act. Who knew that Schlemil and Kleinsach are the same person? Terrific! I do have to say I don't know how good Stephen Lord did except that the singers were watching him a lot especially during those times that I wanted to see a relationship between each other. Did they have to because he had his hands full with a subpar brass and woodwind section? Strings seemed excellent. Again no sparks here. Good thing Santa Fe has hired a musical director.

I am now !00% Christopher Alden fan and if you can see this opera you should if only to see a great piece of direction.
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